Christmas Eve Homily,
me read you the 97th Surah of the Koran. It commemorates the coming of the
holy Word of God, the Koran itself, into the world on that first night
when the Prophet Muhammad, meditating in a cave in Mount Hira, received
the vision of the angel Gabriel commanding him to "Recite!" That
recitation would grow into the great scripture of Islam, a book I have
read many times. I read this brief passage to you in a Christian church
and on this particular night because I believe it applies perfectly also
to the coming of the Word of God Jesus into the world nearly 2000 years
We have caused It to descend on the night of power.
who shall teach thee what the night of power is?
night of power excelleth a thousand months:
Therein descend the angels and the spirit by permission of
their Lord for every matter;
all is peace till the breaking of the morn.
Christmas Eve is a night
potent and pregnant with adventurous expectancy. One feels it in the air.
Some great thing is about to appear, and every eye shall see it. It is as
if the sky were filled with a building electrostatic charge. The
electricity at length builds up to the point where it must be discharged.
And suddenly the darkened heavens give forth a flaming bolt that arcs from
heaven's crest to the earth below. Such are the heavens on Christmas Eve.
Like the Virgin Mary in her ninth month, they are great with child, with
the Word of God, who then issues forth like a thunderbolt from the
Empyrean vault! As the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon puts it:
gentle silence enveloped all things,
night in its swift course was now half gone,
all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from thy royal throne
into the midst of the land...
(Wisdom of Solomon 18:14-15a)
"The Night of Power!"
What a phrase! I borrow it from the Koran, but it is already implicit in
the title of a familiar Christmas carol, "O Holy Night." Because, you see,
originally "Holy" did not carry the connotation it does for us when we
hear the word today. Originally it did not refer to moral rectitude, moral
perfection. At first the Holy referred to the sheer otherness of
the Divine, the terrible gravity of its presence, that which set Moses and
Isaiah atremble, stammering the words, "Woe is me! For I am undone!" The
holiness of God was that which caused him to say to Moses, "Man shall not
see me and live!" A Holy Night was a night of uncanny awe and descending
power. When the Unknown God descended with thunder and lightning on Sinai,
it was a holy night, and a night of power.
And though the lightning
of the divine word struck gently, in a womb, in a manger, in swaddling
clothes, it struck nonetheless. The once-far-off had come near. That of
which no mortal flesh might abide the seeing had appeared in mortal flesh
for all to see! It was a night of power, a holy night.
Children know better than
adults that Christmas Eve is still a night of power, as they can scarcely
sleep for the knowledge that a great boon from the sky will descend upon
them that night. All a child knows is that Santa will descend the chimney,
but there is considerably more to it. Do you know what the myth of Santa
really means? Yes, there is an esoteric significance even to Santa Claus!
If you know your Joseph Campbell, this will not sound strange to you.
First, who is Santa? Historically he is Saint Nicholas of Myra, a fourth
century bishop who loved children and gave them gifts. But our depictions
of him reveal that he has taken on the shape of the Elder Dionysius, as
Dickens depicts the Spirit of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol.
And what are the gifts that this divine apparition brings? They are the
blessings of the eternal realm. Sometimes artists show Sants'a sack as
woven of dark blue with stars and moon signs embroidered on it. This is
why. He brings the gifts of heaven. And he brings them from the world
above, symbolized by the roof. He brings them down the chimney, which
symbolizes the universal mythical idea of the axis mundi that
connects heaven and earth. So the myth of Santa Claus, far from being some
secular substitute for the Incarnation, is actually quite a profound
symbol of the Incarnation! And to children it communicates the thrill of
anticipation that we adults have lost. They know, though perhaps they
cannot truly explain, the power of this night.
When the calendar brings
round again this night of power, it is right to anticipate the gifts of
the morning! If you approach them in the spirit of which I have spoken,
every present you tear open at tomorrow's dawn can be a sacrament and a
reminder of the uncanny gift that appeared when the heavens discharged
their burden that night nigh on to two thousand years ago.
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